Politics and civics

Barry Goldwater on religion in politics

Although titled “To Be Conservative,” Goldwater’s statement was a resounding denunciation of the GOP’s then-growing alignment with “political preachers.”

Possibly the most common quote from Barry Goldwater that is bandied about is this one, from his 1964 speech accepting the GOP nomination for president:

I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.

Today it is the liberals (little ‘l’) who are ‘defending liberty’ and ‘pursuing justice.’ The 21st century flavor of GOP conservatism is one of Christian nationalism. As Goldwater warned, the result is decisive and anti-constitutional.

I’m interested in a more contemporary speech, delivered 15 September 1981 on the floor of the US Senate. The impetus: President Reagan had nominated Sandra Day O’Connor for the Supreme Court on 07 July 1981.

Jerry Falwell’s “moral majority” had “criticized her judicial defense of abortion rights.”

In his statement defending O’Connor, Goldwater reiterated his long-standing opposition to single issue politics and the intertwining of religious conviction with political decisions.

Clearly, Goldwater’s vision of “traditional American values” isn’t what today’s GOP espouses.

The Senate confirmed O’Connor’s nomination (99-0) on 21 September 1981.

Copied from the Congressional Record (p 20589 – 20590)
Emphasis added.

To Be Conservative

Mr. GOLDWATER. Mr. President, it is a wonderful feeling to be a conservative these days. When I ran for President 17 years ago I was told I was behind the times. Now everybody tells me I was ahead of my time. All I can say is that time certainly is an elusive companion.

But those reactions illustrate how far the ideological pendulum has swung in recent years. The American people have expressed their desire for a new course in our public policy in this country — a conservative course.

President Reagan’s triumphs at the polls and in Congress during the past year are, of course, great tributes to his skill as a politician. But they also resulted, I believe, from the long-developing shift of public opinion to traditional Amarican values.

As far as I am concerned, that shift had to come. Government had been intruding more and more into every aspect of our lives. The people just would not stand for it anymore.

I have seen it coming for a long time. Throughout my political career, since the day I took my seat in the U.S. Senate, I have preached one basic theme: The bigger Government gets, the more it threatens our freedom.

I am certain those who contributed to the growth of Government had all the best intentions. As they started one Federal program after another through the years, their motives always sounded good and the intent of the programs always seemed admirable.

Almost 150 years ago a young Frenchman came to this country and marveled at the success of the American experiment in democracy. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote after visiting this country that:

The advantage of democracy does not consist … In favoring the prosperity of all, but simply in contributing to the well-being of the greatest number.

And the foundation for our form of government is not in the principle of prosperity for all but in freedom for all. That is what has attracted all those who have migrated to this country. That is what has made America the symbol of hope and prosperity for all the world. Freedom: That is what true conservatism is all about.

Being a conservative in America traditionally has meant that one holds a deep, abiding respect for the Constitution. We conservatives believe sincerely in the integrity of the Constitution. We treasure the freedom that document protects.

We believe, as the Founding Fathers did, that we “are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

And for 205 years this Nation, based on those principles, has endured. Through foreign wars and civil wars, through political scandals and economic disasters, through civil disorders and Presidential assassinations, our flag has flown high. Through it all we have survived every possible attack on our freedom.

But where the guns of war and the breadlines of the depression failed, another force could succeed in dividing our country. The specter of single issue religious groups is growing over our land. In all honesty, I must admit that the birth of the so-called “new right” is a direct reaction to years of increasing social activism bv the liberal side of the religious house. Within that development lies a very serious threat to our liberty.

One of the great strengths of our political system always has been our tendency to keep religious issues in the background. By maintaining the separation of church and state the United States has avoided the intolerance which has so divided the rest of the world with religious wars. Throughout our 200-plus years, public policy debate has focused on political and economic issues, on which there can be compromise.

James Madison, once wrote that “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”

Well, Madison certainly recognized that humans are not angels. He realized that they tend to group together in narrow interest groups, which he called factions. And he wrote extensively in the federalist papers about how the Constitution should protect us from the abuses of various factions.

Madison saw this as the great paradox of our system: How do you control the factions without violating the people’s basic freedoms?

Madison wrote:

In framing a government which Is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.

And in a well-constructed representative government like ours, Madison said, one of our greatest strengths is our ability to “break and control the violence of faction.”

What he said is that the aim of the framers of the Constitution was to allow freedom of religion and freedom of speech for everyone, not just those who follow one religious faction.

Madison said:

A zeal for different opinions concerning religion has occasionally divided mankind . . and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppose each other than to cooperate for the common good.

Can any of us refute the wisdom of Madison and the other framers? Can anyone look at the carnage of Iran, the bloodshed in Northern Ireland, or the bombs bursting in Lebanon and yet question the dangers of injecting religious issues into the affairs of state?

Our political process involves a constant give and take, a continuous series of trade-offs. From this system of compromise, we get legislation that reflects input from many sectors of our society and addresses many needs and interests. Obviously, not everyone can be pleased, but at least all sides are considered.

However, on religious issues there can be little or no compromise. There is no position on which people are so immovable as their religious beliefs. There is no more powerful ally one can claim in a debate than Jesus Christ. Or God, or Allah, or whatever one calls his supreme being.

But, like any powerful weapon, the use of God’s name on one’s behalf should be used sparingly.

The religious factors that are growing throughout our land are not using their religious clout with wisdom. They are trying to force government leaders into following their positions 100 percent. If you disagree with these religious groups on any particular moral issue, they cajole, they complain, they threaten you with loss of money or votes or both.

In the past couple years. I have seen many news items that referred to the moral majority, pro-life and other religious groups as “the new right,” and the “new conservatism.” Well. I have spent quite a number of years carrying the flag of the “old conservatism.” And I can say with conviction that the religious issues of these groups have little or nothing to do with conservative or liberal politics.

The uncompromising position of these groups is a divisive element that could tear apart the very spirit of our representative system, if they gain sufficient strength.

As it is, they are diverting us away from the vital issues that our Government needs to address. We are facing serious economic and military dangers in this country today, and we need to make a concerted effort to correct our problems in these areas.

But far too much of the time of Members of Congress and officials in the executive branch is used up dealing with special interest groups on issues like abortion, school busing, ERA, prayer in the schools, and pornography. While these are important moral issues, they are secondary right now to our national security and economic survival.

I must make it clear that I do not condemn these groups for what they believe. I happen to share many of the values emphasized by these organizations.

I, too, believe that we Americans should return to our traditional values concerning morality, family closeness, self-reliance, and a dav’s work for a day’s pay. These are the values our forebears clung to as they built this Nation into the citadel of freedom it is today.

And I, too, have been pleased with the swing of the pendulum for in recent years to the conservative, moral end of the spectrum.

But I object to certain groups jumping on that pendulum and then claiming that they caused it to swing in the first place.

And I’m frankly sick and tired of the political preachers across this country telling me as a citizen that if I want to be a moral person, I must believe in “A,” “B,” “C” and “D.” Just who do they think they are? And from where do they presume to claim the right to dictate their moral beliefs to me?

And I am even more angry as a legislator who must endure the threats of every religious group who thinks it has some God-granted right to control my vote on every roll call in the Senate.

I am warning them today: I will fight them every step of the way if they try to dictate their moral convictions to all Americans in the name of conservatism.

This unrelenting obsession with a particular goal destroys the perspective of many decent people with whom I think I agree on most issues. In the quest for moral righteousness they have become easy prey to manipulation and misjudgment.

A prime example was the recent nomination of Sandra Day O’Connor as a Supreme Court justice and the ensuing uproar over her stand on abortion.

The abortion issue has nothing to do with being conservative or liberal. I happen to oppose abortion, but there are many fine conservatives who would go along with regulated abortions. In fact, my own wife believes that a woman should have the freedom of choice for herself whether she is capable of continuing the pregnancy and then raising the child.

I disagree with her on that. Yet I respect her right to disagree. If I expected her to agree with me on every issue we would be in a lot of trouble.

And the same goes for prospective Supreme Court justices. No single issue should ever decide the fitness of a Supreme Court justice. To think otherwise is to go against the integrity of the Constitution.

There are many broad issues addressed each day by a jurist that are much more revealing of how that person might perform on the High Court. A judge’s attitude on private property rights, State sovereignty, statutory construction, and treatment of criminals tells me more about whether a person is conservative than his or her stand on abortion.

Of course, the saddest part of this whole dispute was that Judge O’Connor was attacked by these religious factions for a position she does not hold. She opposes abortion and said so. I firmly believe that she recognizes the authority of legislatures to regulate it.

She will make an excellent justice of the Supreme Court. She will make President Reagan proud that he chose her as the best of all candidates–men or women.

And the religious factions will go on imposing their will on others unless the decent people connected to them recognize that religion has no place in public policy.

They must learn to make their views known without trying to make their views the only alternatives.

The great decisions of Government cannot be dictated by the concerns of religious factions. This was true in the days of Madison, and it is just as true today.

We have succeeded for 205 years in keeping the affairs of State separate from the uncompromising idealism of religious groups and we must not stop now.

To retreat from that separation would violate the principles of conservatism and the values upon which the framers built this democratic republic.

Goldwater speech, 15 Sept 1981
Titled “To Be Conservative”. Congressional Record, 15 Sept 1981, p 20589


Goldwater speech, 15 Sept 1981
Titled “To Be Conservative”. Congressional Record, 15 Sept 1981, p 20590

By Kathy E. Gill

Digital evangelist, speaker, writer, educator. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill

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